2006 June/A New Virtue

A NEW virtue has been discovered. It has been glorified in best sellers, canonised by official usage, made to feel at home in the crowded family of the virtues.

Obviously, it is no easier to discover a new virtue than it is to discover a new sin; and centuries of sinning have introduced no new variety into the devil’s garden. This seems quite as it should be, for, after all, the principles of man’s sins have not changed, nor have God, men, or angels the only objects of his sins undergone any alteration. On much the same grounds, it might be argued that there is no possibility of increase in the family of virtues; but that is to reckon without the modern mind.

We have found a brand-new virtue and christened it Tolerance. Of course it has some resemblance to the older, somewhat worn virtues. It is, for example, not unlike that distinctively Christian courage that goes by the name of patience. In fact, if tolerance meant to tolerate, it would really be the same old patience under a new name; for then its routine work would be putting up with nuisances, while its full perfection would consist in bearing hardship and sorrow without letting grief flood the soul to the point of complete surrender. Tolerance, in this sense, would mean that extraordinary strength which is capable of sustaining a terrific beating without suffering defeat.

This new virtue, however, does not deal primarily with nuisances, hardships, and sorrow. It embraces opinion, error, truth, good, and evil. It tolerates all opinions on all but scientific subjects; it tolerates all religious beliefs and all denials of religious beliefs; varying shades of stable moral codes and the denial of all stable moral codes; philosophical and theological truths and the denial of philosophical and theological truths. Clearly it is not patience but a much wider virtue carrying with it a surer guaranty against conflict of any kind. Patience endures evil because this evil can be met only by endurance; there is no kindly feeling in the heart of patience for the evil afflicting it. It girds its loins for a dogged fight that is necessarily defensive, prepared to take the beating that cannot be escaped. Tolerance, on the other hand, is on the best of terms with everyone and everything; its particular attraction is that it avoids any threat of a thrashing.

Its good humour makes it look something like Christian charity. It should not, of course, engage in hearty laughter; for laughter is a decidedly definite commitment to one point of view that might be offensive to another. But it can and does smile ceaselessly, almost woodenly as proof of its universally kind feeling. It strikes no blows against anyone or anything. It will have peace at any price. It excludes no one or no thing. The doors of its heart are as open as an unfenced field. Within its hospitably spacious tent the lamb and the lion can lie down together, or the lion can eat the lamb or, for that matter, the lamb can eat the lion. Tolerance will make no trouble about the whole thing one way or another; it cannot make trouble, for, though not all things to all men, it is the same thing to all men. Yet the differences from charity are striking enough to warrant this new virtue’s claim to novelty. St. Paul could say that the charity of Christ urged him on; it is hard to picture tolerance urging a man on, particularly to such things as St. Paul faced: to hunger, thirst, imprisonment, scourgings, and death. Charity encompasses all things by renouncing them all to embrace their source; tolerance only smiles at them all, including their source, with its frozen, tolerant smile. Charity hates evil, detests sin, fights to its very last breath that sin may not conquer. Tolerance is no fighter, and above all no hater. Which is to say, that tolerance is no lover. When we have said that much, we have perhaps said all that need be said about tolerance.

The tremendous staying power of patience is accounted for by its high estimate of the good which its refuses to relinquish whatever the punishment it must undergo. Charity’s intense drive, unquestioning sacrifice, and fighting loyalty are not at all mysterious; for charity is love. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to determine what makes the wheels of tolerance go. The puzzle, perhaps, is really not so much what makes the wheels of tolerance go, but rather what paralyses them in inaction.

For tolerance does not, in fact, do anything, embrace anyone, champion any issue. It wipes the notes off the score of life and replaces them with one long bar of rest. It does not attack error, it does not champion truth, it does not hate evil, it does not love good; and if anything else be said of its action, it must be said negatively, denying all action. This very fact solves the difficulty of the mainspring of tolerance; for a man is dedicated to inaction only by a lack of interest that sees nothing worth the difficulty of moving toward it. If it is insisted that tolerance is a virtue, it must be defined as a habit of doing nothing from a conviction that nothing matters.

Actually, tolerance includes a serious contempt of men in its boredom with all values. It is not kindness to smile on the sins of men, though it is charity to smile on the sinners as one fights the sin; it is not thoughtfulness for men that smiles on their championship of error, though it is charity to embrace the erring while you slay the errors; it is not love of men that inspires an equally pallid welcome to atheism, paganism, and divine religion; it is contempt of the very things that matter most in the lives of men, and so contempt of the men themselves.

Tolerance is the modern-day substitute for the charity of Christ, but this contemptuous tolerance is a far cry from Christ’s loving toleration. There is much to be said for the toleration of men and women whatever they may have believed, said, done, or planned to do; so much, indeed, that the Son of Mary will accept no quibbling excuses for the lack of it when the last questions are asked. Such toleration includes a fighting opposition to all that threatens the image of God in men and the attainment of God by men. It is not the product of that supine indifference which bears the name of tolerance today, the indifference that finds nothing important enough to warrant a struggle, not even men.